The Third Mission In A Month Sent To Mars. Sadly, This Will Not Happen Again Soon
The United Arab Emirates, China, and the United States have each launched probes and all-terrain vehicles that will begin studying the neighboring planet in February 2021. It looks as if we have taken on Mars with unprecedented zeal, but there are almost no concrete plans — there are intentions.
Once every 26 months, Mars "catches up" with Earth in orbit: in the best years, the distance between the two planets do not exceed 60 million km. At this time, it is convenient to launch vehicles, because the road requires less fuel, and the flight itself takes some six to eight months: by space standards-not so much.
Venus, our other neighbor, is even closer, but it is much more difficult to study. Once it might have looked like Earth, but today the planet's atmosphere is so dense that you can't see through it, and at the surface, because of the huge pressure, carbon dioxide resembles a liquid, the sky drips sulfuric acid, a terrible wind blows, the heat melts lead.
Mars, too, once could resemble the Earth but remain more hospitable than Venus. For example, the daytime temperature near the InSight probe has been around -15 °C in recent days, and at night it drops to -90 °C: it is cold, but not much worse than in winter in Antarctica. In summer, the lighted side of Mars can even be hot, but it's like a resort, not hell. Besides, the red planet comes across water ice, and before there were rivers and lakes.
However, now the wasteland of Mars is covered with poisonous salts-perchlorates, gravity is weak by earth standards, there is almost no atmosphere, and there is no magnetic field, so nothing protects from cosmic radiation. But robots are not so afraid, so of all the planets, Mars is the most convenient to study.
The first spacecraft was sent to the Red planet before the first man was sent to space. In October 1960, the USSR launched the automatic Mars 1960A station, but it did not even reach Earth's orbit. It was possible to successfully reach Mars only on the seventh attempt: in the summer of 1965, the American station "Mariner-4" flew over the surface and transmitted two dozen images.
At that time, it seemed that space would quickly be conquered. In 1969, the Americans landed on the Moon, and by 1971, the USSR was going to send a ship with people on Board on a three-year expedition to Mars and Venus. But even simpler launches of probes and stations often failed — the risk was too great, and the more information about space and Mars appeared, the more difficult such a mission seemed. Also, the development of a heavy rocket was curtailed — there was nothing to fly on.
In the United States, shortly after the moon mission, President Richard Nixon decided that spending on space exploration should take "its proper place in a rigid system of national interests." NASA's budget was cut (not for the first time, however), and the same was done under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. By then, enough data from the Viking 1 and Viking 2 spacecraft had been received from the surface and orbit of Mars to conclude that there was probably no life on this planet.
What and how to search on Mars
The hope of finding at least microbes justified Martian missions, if not for scientists, then for politicians and ordinary people. Flights to another planet do not promise commercial benefits in the foreseeable future, and dust-covered all-terrain vehicles and circling satellites, unlike space telescopes like Hubble and Kepler, can say little about the fundamental structure of the Universe, do not allow you to look into its far corners, and our home planet is reported much less than research directly on the Earth.
The search for traces of life on Mars — even if not fresh — is the goal of the ExoMars program, which is run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos. The NASA planetary research strategy for 2013-2022 also refers to the study of habitability conditions and evidence of life.
In the past "window," which opened in the spring of 2018, only the American InSight spacecraft flew to Mars with a drill to explore the planet's interior, and this summer, three missions went at once. One is the al-Amal satellite. That is the first device of the United Arab Emirates launched to another celestial body. It will study the weather and climate, and the data will allow you to make the first map of the Martian atmosphere.
Four days later, the Tianwen-1 mission went to Mars, which, if successful, will also be the first of its kind for China (in 2011, the Chinese tried to send the INHO-1 probe, but it burned up in The Earth's atmosphere along with the Russian Phobos-Grunt). Tianwen-1 is an orbital probe and an all-terrain vehicle. With the help of an all-terrain vehicle, they will search for deposits of water ice where microbes may live.
Finally, on July 30, the American Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance all-terrain vehicle will start. This device will study rocks and look for traces of ancient life. It also has a drill with a picket for stones: the most promising ones will be stacked in one place — perhaps someone will one day bring them to the Earth for study. Finally, along with the Rover, a small helicopter Ingenuity will go to Mars — engineers will check whether it will take off in the rarefied atmosphere of the planet. If successful, more sophisticated helicopters will be developed for future missions.
In 2020, as part of the ExoMars program, ESA was going to send its all-terrain vehicle along with a landing platform designed by Roscosmos engineers, but, in March, the launch was postponed again, and now they are preparing for the next window in 2022. The tasks for the second part of ExoMars remained the same: searching for traces of life, studying minerals, and analyzing the chemical composition of the atmosphere (the latter is already being handled by the Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been flying around Mars since the fall of 2016).
Like NASA, ESA and Roscosmos say that in the future, the technologies used in The ExoMars spacecraft will be useful for transporting Martian soil to the Earth. But there is a bureaucratic problem with this.
Who will explore Mars next
NASA is already developing a plan to deliver rocks to the Earth from a neighboring planet. That will require a rocket that will lift samples from the surface of Mars into orbit, and from there, another vehicle will take them to us. Only this plan has not been approved: the 2020 mission is still the last in the NASA calendar. ESA and Roscosmos also plan only "ExoMars." But even if the new missions are approved tomorrow, it will take years to prepare: InSight, launched in May 2018, was approved in 2012, six years passed before the launch.
In 2017, the Planetary society — this American NGO is engaged in space research projects and promotes science-issued an alarming report on the development of Mars. It says that if NASA launches the vehicles needed to deliver soil in 2026, the mission will be threatened by outdated telecommunications satellites orbiting the red planet. The newest, European Trace Gas Orbiter, will be ten years old, and the most powerful — Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — will be in its third decade.
Perhaps the leading space agencies will quickly prepare new missions. There is still hope for Asian countries: in 2022-2024, India and Japan are going to send spacecraft to Mars. By this time, al-Amal and Tianwen-1 will have reached the neighboring planet. However, they are not mentioned on the websites of NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos — it is unclear whether these agencies are considering cooperation.
Finally, there are private companies, most notably SpaceX dreamer Elon Musk. Already in 2024, Musk wants to send people to Mars, not just a research mission. Also, he admits that he will go there himself. State agencies speak evasively about manned flights and ask for patience until the 2030s and 2040s. Probably, the American entrepreneur will not be able to send a crew to the Red planet so soon either.
But the Mask, the launching into space of the car, turns to return to space a romantic flair. In scientific articles and press releases of agencies, this Fleur is dispelled by footnotes and reservations: on Mars, there is water, organic matter, energy, but there is always some "but" that descends from the heavens to the Earth. Perhaps it is the collective dream that is missing for the exploration of Mars, and this dream will lead to astounding discoveries.